'The Intertidal Zone'.

Stephen Hillenburg was an American animator, most famous as the creator of 'SpongeBob Squarepants' (1999- ), which is broadcast on Nickelodeon. The adventures of a happy sea sponge and his under water friends rose to become one of the most popular children's TV shows of all time. Surprisingly enough, its silly comedy and absurd, but innocent plots struck a chord with adults too. 'SpongeBob' became a massive critical and commercial success. New episodes are still made to this day, while reruns can be seen all over the globe. Beloved by people of all ages 'SpongeBob' has become a universal cultural phenomenon. And it was all born out of a one-shot educational comic strip Hillenburg drew when he was a teacher in marine biology: 'The Intertidal Zone' . While he never made another comic again, 'SpongeBob' itself has spawned various comics created by other writers and artists.

Early life, influences and career
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born in 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma, but spent his childhood in Anaheim, California. His father worked as an aerospace designer while his mother was a teacher for visually impaired children. Hillenburg enjoyed drawing from an early age, attributing his talent to his grandmother from his mother's side. Among his graphic influences were comic artists like George Herriman, E.C. Segar and later Bill Watterson, while painters like Mike Kelley and illustrators such as Dr. Seuss also sparked his imagination. In terms of animation he was influenced by Max Fleischer, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Jay Ward, George Dunning and Heinz Edelmann's 'Yellow Submarine' (1968), Paul Driessen and Nico Crama's animated short 'Ei om Zeep' (translated in English as 'The Killing of an Egg', 1977), Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi, Jules Engel and Richard Condie. Hillenburg was also inspired by comedy from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, Jerry Lewis, Jim Henson's 'The Muppets' and the wackiness of Peewee Herman's comedy show 'Peewee's Playhouse'.

One of Hillenburg's greatest fascinations was the ocean. He loved swimming, scuba diving and watching Jacques Cousteau's famous documentaries. In fact, the French-sounding voiceover in many 'SpongeBob' episodes is a parody of Cousteau. After high school Hillenburg had a summer job as a cook in a seafood restaurant in Maine. This too would later find its way into his TV show as the Krusty Krab restaurant. Including the song the waiters, dressed up as pirates, sang to entertain children while they waited for dinner. Its first two lines were borrowed for SpongeBob's theme song. Hillenburg later studied marine biology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, eventually becoming a teacher in this discipline at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, California.

'The Intertidal Zone'.

The Intertidal Zone
Hillenburg taught marine biology for three years, between 1984 and 1987. It was during this period that he drew an educational comic strip to be used in his lessons. Titled 'The Intertidal Zone', it explained animal life in tidal and/or rock pools through the use of anthropomorphic sea creatures. One of them was a character named "Bob the Sponge", though he looked more like an actual sea sponge at the time. Since Hillenburg's pupils loved the comic, he tried to bring it out as a comic book, but found no publisher interested. Decades later, a few images from this comic would be reprinted in the first issue of 'SpongeBob Comics' (2011).

Animation career
In 1987 Hillenburg decided to become an animator and followed the Experimental Animation Program at CalArts. His teacher, Jules Engel, allowed him in on the strength of 'The Intertidal Zone'. While still taking courses Hillenburg made his first animated shorts. 'The Green Beret' (1992) was a silly cartoon about a girl scout with colossal fists trying to sell cookies. 'Wormholes' (1992) had a more philosophical tone, based on Einstein's theory of relativity. It won an award for "Best Concept" at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. At the same festival, Hillenburg met animator Joe Murray in whose studio he would soon be employed, after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in 1992.

Rocko's Modern Life
Joe Murray created the animated TV show 'Rocko's Modern Life' (1993-1996), which aired on Nickelodeon. It featured a group of anthropomorphic animals, among them title character Rocko the wallaby. 'Rocko's Modern Life' gained a cult following among adults who enjoyed the surreal storylines and many infamous double entendres. Hillenburg was initially just a scriptwriter, executive story editor and animator on the show, but by its third season he was promoted to become a director and producer. When 'Rocko's Modern Life' came to an end, one of the writers, Martin Olson, read 'The Intertidal Zone' and strongly encouraged Hillenburg to create his own animated series. In 1998 Hillenburg established a TV and film production company, United Plankton Pictures. He assembled a team of animators, mostly former colleagues from 'Rocko's Modern Life', and developed 'SpongeBob'. Originally his name would be "SpongeBoy", but it turned out there was already a similarly titled mop product and character by Bob Burden.

Sketch of SpongeBob by Stephen Hillenburg.

SpongeBob Squarepants
On 1 May 1999 the pilot for 'SpongeBob Squarepants' first aired on Nickelodeon, becoming a full-blown series from 17 July on. The show is set at the bottom of the ocean in a city named Bikini Bottom (a pun on the bathing suit and the Bikini atoll). SpongeBob is a happy, enthusiastic and optimistic sponge. Like the theme song mentions "he lives in a pineapple under the sea" with his pet snail Gary. SpongeBob has a positive outlook on life. He is always out to have fun and treats everybody with the same respect. His only vice is that he is somewhat naïve. SpongeBob may appear to be like a child, but he is actually old enough to learn how to drive. Nevertheless he constantly fails his driving test to the panic of his instructor, Mrs. Puff. Spongebob earns his income by working in a local restaurant, Krusty Krab, alongside his grouchy co-worker and next-door-neighbour Squidward Tentacles. Mr. Krabs is the owner. He doesn't care much about the well-being of his customers, nor his co-workers. Earning and particularly saving money are his highest concerns. Like his name implies he is a crab, but his teenage daughter, Pearl, is a sperm whale. Mr. Krabs' rival is the green copepod Plankton who also runs a restaurant and constantly hatches schemes to obtain the secret formula of Mr. Krabs' Patty burgers. SpongeBob's best friends are Patrick, a utterly stupid pink starfish, and Sandy, a squirrel in a diving suit. Also mentionable are the comic book characters within SpongeBob's universe, namely Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, who are partially a parody of Bob Kane's 'Batman & Robin' and Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris'  'Aquaman'.

'SpongeBob' has a very creative set-up. All the buildings in SpongeBob's hometown are composed out of ship wrecks, steering wheels, anchors, nets, sails, fishing rods, crow's nests, surf planks and other nautical objects. Other elements are influenced by Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, such as tiki statues, shirts with flower motifs and ukelele music on the soundtrack. Thanks to Hillenburg's maritime knowledge he was able to find inspiration in many real-life sea creatures and other ocean phenomena. But he and his crew delightfully play around with the concept, often turning logic on its head. SpongeBob goes out catching jellyfish in the same way humans would catch butterflies with a net. There is a beach too, where a lifeguard looks out for people who might be drowning, despite everybody already living under water. In another episode characters make a camp fire, only to be amazed how it can burn, whereupon it instantly fizzles out. Nevertheless SpongeBob behaves like a real sea creature would when he leaves the water: he starts dehydrating.

Still from: 'Band Geeks' (2001). 

Silly comedy and wacky animation like this are two of the series' trademarks. The show is infamous for featuring random silly moments, often through goofy facial expressions and preposterous reactions. Since the title character is a sponge he can bend his elastic body into all kinds of bizarre shapes. He can even play flute on his nose. A lot of comedy comes from SpongeBob's joyful attitude. He is blissfully unaware how weird he comes across and totally oblivious that he annoys people like Squidward. His enthusiasm often goes to zany extremes. In 'Sleepy Time' (2000) he actually flies into other's people's dreams, because he wondered so much what others dream about at night? Patrick's dimwittedness is also hilarious. In 'Life of Crime' (2001) he eats a chocolate bar and instantly forgets this, accusing SpongeBob of stealing his portion. He can get mad for ludicrous reasons, but is easily fooled as well. The show features many other unforgettable eccentric characters and silly moments. In 'Your Shoe's Untied' (2000) SpongeBob tries to find someone how can help him tie his shoes, but since most of his friends are fish and invertebrates they don't even have feet! A fan favorite is the episode 'Band Geeks' (2001), in which Squidward tries to train a marching band in one week, but has difficulty getting them organized. 

Yet underneath all the wackiness, 'SpongeBob' often tells heartwarming and meaningful morals. In 'Not Normal' (2008) SpongeBob tries to fit in with the rest by pretending to be normal, only to find out that his quirks are what makes him special and feel good in the first place. In 'The Paper' (2000) he has fun with a piece of gum wrapper. Squidward is baffled, irritated and eventually intrigued by it. He sells off all his possessions just to buy it from SpongeBob. Yet when he finally has it he discovers it's just a piece of paper. It was SpongeBob's imagination that made the wrapper so much fun, not the object in itself.

Hillenburg always insisted starting off with a simple premise and let the plot be driven forward by the characters' personalities. Unlike most TV shows 'SpongeBob' uses no fully worked out scripts, but just a short outline on two pages. Storyboard artists then work the content out further, adding several extra gags and dialogue in the process. Among the people who worked on the series have been Bob Camp, Marco Cinello, Sherm Cohen (after whom the character Uncle Sherm was named), Derek Drymon, Mike FontanelliSam Henderson, Kaz, Greg Larocque, Mark O'Hare and Vincent Waller. Celebrities like Ernest Borgnine (who voiced Mermaid Man), Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, Gene Simmons, Henry Winkler, Jim Jarmusch, Mark Hamill, Victoria Beckham and Johnny Depp were cast as special guest voices.

Sherm Cohen began drawing 'SpongeBob' in comic stories for Nickelodeon Magazine in 1996. He moved over to the animation department in 1998.

'SpongeBob' has always been an odd combination of a harmless kids' show with an eccentric streak. Contrary to many other animated TV shows since the 1990s, it doesn't rely on pop culture references or irony. It's both timeless and innocent. The comedy is smart without alienating young viewers or being childish and meandering. Appealing to all ages 'SpongeBob' quickly rose from a cult show to become Nickelodeon's most popular program of all time. By the mid-2000s 'SpongeBob' was a universal cultural phenomenon. Particularly in Germany, China, Japan, the Middle East and Australia it is very beloved. In Germany various official music albums sang by the German dub cast have been released, outside the official English-language dubbing albums. In China 'SpongeBob' is one of the few foreign shows not banned by the local government. In February 2013 a video of Russian soldiers and marines singing the 'SpongeBob' theme song while drilling became a YouTube hit.

But the most unexpected corner of the Earth where the show found a strong fanbase is the Middle East, where deserts are far more prominent than water. In Ramallah, Palestine, there is even a real-life version of the Krusty Krab restaurant since 2014. During the Arab Spring (2011) SpongeBob emerged as a symbol of rebellion, though not in the way Western media would imagine it. He is used as graffiti, a fashion statement and during public demonstrations, all because people like him far better than any of their recent heads of state. During a 2013 celebration of the Libyan revolution on Tahrir Square one man was photographed dressed up as SpongeBob. In Egypt, Libya and Syria people have voted for SpongeBob as a joke candidate. It even worried some authorities. In June 2016 Iranian goalkeeper Sosha Makani was suspended for wearing yellow dotted trousers which looked like SpongeBob's face and were therefore interpreted as rebellion against the government. 

It's only a slight exaggeration that SpongeBob is almost a new religion. In Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons', namely the episode 'She Used To Be My Girl' (2004), Lisa prays to God, Buddha and SpongeBob. Certain Christian and Muslim fundamentalist groups took 'SpongeBob' a bit too seriously and claimed it advocates pro-LGBT messages. These minor criticisms aside, the show remains both a critical and commercial success. Among its celebrity fans have been fashion designer Peter Jensen, basketballer LeBron James, musicians Pharrell Williams and Tom Waits, graphic artists Cal Schenkel, John Kricfalusi and Matt Groening, actors Jerry Lewis, Dennis Miller, Ricky Gervais, Sigourney Weaver and Bruce Willis and even U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President Barack Obama, who declared him "his favorite TV character." In May 2011 biologists named a new mushroom species, 'Spongiforma squarepantsii' after SpongeBob.

Media adaptations
'SpongeBob' inspired a tidal wave of merchandising, including a 2016 theatrical musical and three movies. 'The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie' (2004) was released in theaters and received good reviews from audiences and critics alike. The picture featured guest voices by Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin and David Hasselhoff, while the soundtrack had songs by Avril Lavigne, The Flaming Lips, Wilco, Ween, The Shins and Motörhead. The next two films were TV movies. 'SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis' (2007) had Antonio Banderas and David Bowie as guest stars while 'SpongeBob's Truth or Square' (2009) starred Ricky Gervais as the narrator with appearances by Craig Ferguson, Rosario Dawson, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, LeBron James, Eddie Deezen, P!nk, Robin Williams and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Covers for Spongebob Comics #1 and #67.

As soon as 'SpongeBob' became a hit on TV, comic strip adaptations were published in Nickelodeon Magazine and Cine-Manga, drawn by Sherm Cohen, Barba Corey, Pepe Ferré's Studio Comicon and Silver Age veteran Ramona Fradon. In February 2011 United Plankton Pictures released a bimonthly comic book series, 'SpongeBob Comics', distributed by Matt Groening, Bill Morrison and Steve and Cindy Vance's Bongo Comics Group. Among the writers and artists who contributed to it were Casey Alexander, Graham Annable, Hilary Barta, Jacob Chabot, Adam DeKraker, Vincent Deporter, Stephen Destefano, Chuck Dixon, Chris Duffy, Bob Flynn, Ramona Fradon, Sam Henderson, James Kochalka, Jacob Lambert, Robert Leighton, David Lewman, Art Mawhinney, Dani Michaeli, Nate Neal, Mark O'Hare, Jerry Ordway, Andy Rementer, Scott Roberts, Dave Roman, Gregg Schigiel, Scott Shaw, Brian Smith, Joey Weiser, Maris Wicks, Julie Winterbottom and Chris Yambar. In 2012 Stephen R. Bissette, Tony Millionaire, Derek Drymon and Al Jaffee wrote a special Halloween episode. The Halloween episode of the following year was created by Michael T. Gilbert.

'SpongeBob Squarepants' won four Emmy Awards, 6 Annie Awards, two BAFTA Children's Awards and a record-breaking 15 Kids' Choice Awards. In 2001 the environmental nonprofit organization Heal the Bay awarded Hillenburg the Walk the Talk Award for raising public awareness about marine life. The next year the celebrated animator was given the Princess Grace Statue (2002) for his cultural achievements. In 2018 Hillenburg received the Winsor McCay Award.

Final years and death
In 2004 Hillenburg resigned as SpongeBob's showrunner, but stayed on board as creative advisor. He still reviewed and approved every new episode before it aired. In March 2017 the animator was diagnosed with ALS. He kept working until eventually succombing to this neurological disease on 26 November 2018, at age 57. After his death, tributes poured in from actors David Hasselhoff, Gabriel Gundacker, comedians Jorma Taccone and Jaboukie and animators Jorge Gurierrez ('El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera') and Butch Harman ('Fairly Odd Parents', 'Danny Phantom').

Legacy and influence
'SpongeBob' remains beloved with many viewers and still brings in worldwide high ratings. Its jokes and imagery have lent itself well to numerous memes, gifs and fan videos on the Internet, all personified by pure, innocent fun. Stephen Hillenburg created one of the last classic animation heroes of the 20th century who bridged well into the 21st century and will easily stick around in reruns for many decades to come.

Stephen Hillenburg.

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